Water Research

RMBL researcher working in the East River. Photo credit to Alexis Navarre-Sitchler.

RMBL Researchers from a number of institutions including Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Fort Lewis College, Colorado School of Mines, Stanford, and others are working together to understand the quality and quantity of water in the mountains.  This research focus is called the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) and is largely funded by the Department of Energy.  The core research sites for this work are in the upper Gunnison Basin in the vicinity of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, Colorado.  This research involves an extensive climate sensor system employing soil and air temperature sensors, precipitation and snowload sensors, wind sensors, PAR sensors, and phenology cameras.  In order to understand water, nutrient, metal, microbe and vegetation dynamics in this system, water samples are collected from river water and ground water at various depths up to 30 meters.  Scientists also collect underground gases, soil samples and vegetation.  A snowmelt manipulation experiment will begin in spring of 2018.

Climate change and human activities are significantly reshaping interactions between vegetation, soils, subsurface and fluvial compartments of watersheds throughout the world. Watersheds are recognized as the Earth’s key functional unit for assessing and managing water resources.  Hydrological processes in watersheds also mediate most of the biogeochemical processes that support life on Earth. In spite of the importance of watershed function to agriculture, energy, urban and other societally important systems, the scientific community is at an early stage of developing predictive understandings of how watersheds function from a hydrological and biogeochemical perspective, and how they will respond to increasingly frequent perturbations, such as floods and droughts.

The Watershed Function SFA aims to predict how mountainous watersheds retain and release water, nutrients, carbon and metals. In particular, the SFA will quantify how droughts, early snowmelt, and other perturbations that are expected to be increasingly common will influence mountainous watershed dynamics that impact downstream water availability and biogeochemical cycling at seasonal to decadal timescales. We choose to work within mountainous watersheds due to the critical role of mountainous watersheds for supplying water for the world as well as to their vulnerability to global warming, which is expected to lead to a cascade of unknown effects on downstream water availability, nutrient loading, carbon cycling, and water quality. We conduct research in a headwater catchment of the Upper Colorado River Basin, perhaps the most important Basin in the Western US, which supplies municipal water to more than 1 in 10 Americans, irrigation water and nutrients to more than 5.5 million acres of land, and supports more than 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, providing power to hundreds of communities and millions of people, and supports diverse ecosystems that provide other services.

This research was reviewed by RMBL and the U.S. Forest Service and is under a permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service.